The hallmark of democracy, any average citizen would invariably declare, is free elections. But free from what? Indeed, what are free elections? Clearly, they should be free from coercion, especially threats from state authorities or parties.
The voter must be free of any pressure to choose this or that candidate or party. Free elections are also predicated on a free flow of information. Candidates should have equal access to the electorate, who should be able to freely obtain information about them. Moreover, citizens should be free to be candidates and stand for elections.
Arguably though, one of the most fundamental aspects of the democratic system is that the electorate should feel that the elections were fair. When segments of the population and especially minority groups are under the impression that the electoral process discriminates against them, or that they are underrepresented, democratic society is in for trouble.
An electorate that feels cheated can lead to anarchy. Extremists feed on such feelings. It is precisely at this juncture where the media plays a crucial role.
An election campaign which is covered fairly by the media creates the necessary impression of equality; even the losers know that the game was fair.
If though, as in the past, the media distorts the campaign and favors one side or the other, the result may be disastrous.
In the past weeks, we were fed daily by the press with the brouhaha surrounding the “Jewish state law” and how it negates Israel’s democratic fiber.
The harm to democracy which results from an aggressive and one-sided media is much greater than that caused by any “Jewish state law.” The challenge to our media is whether they will curb themselves and make the effort to create a process which is perceived as fair by the populace.
It is no secret that the percentage of voters in Israel has declined to almost 60 percent.
This is a symptom of an election process that needs fixing.
Too many people feel their vote is useless, that candidates do whatever they want once elected, campaign promises are not credible and that there is a lack of accountability. Here too, the press can and should play a central role.
There is a debate in academic circles as to whether the media have a major influence on the electoral outcome. In our opinion, this is a secondary question and the raging discussion surrounding it cannot lead to a definitive result. Media adoration can perhaps convince some people but at the same time, can also lead to a backlash. The facts in Israel are that even though our media is mostly left-of-center, the majority usually votes right-of-center. The Israeli voter seems to know how to filter the information received from the media and is sufficiently independent and intelligent to reach his or her own conclusions.
Our thesis, though, is that an unfair media which has traditionally propped up left-of-center politicians also has helped to create apathy in the electorate which may become dangerous to our democracy. The media can correct this process by abiding by a few elementary principles.
Former Meretz minister Yossi Sarid recently published a column in Haaretz in which he wrote, “A journalist who is not ‘anti’ in his consciousness and temperament is an anti-journalist.”
He exhorted media people to assume that “the common politician [is]... guilty until proven innocent. He’s a liar until proven pure. Suspect him and suspect him... because these politicians are masters of deceit.”
Election time presents a good test of Sarid’s principle. Will the media present the populace with a record of previous electoral promises and compare them with reality? Will it do this fairly, with equal suspicious treatment to all? Will Israel’s media, for the first time in its history, demand accountability from the various parties, irrespective of their own personal agendas? Such accountability is not limited to the government, but should extend also to opposition parties. The media should question election promises, rather than parrot them, especially if the promises reflect the journalists’ own wishes.
Journalists and pundits are human beings, with their own views, and it is only natural that this is reflected in their work. It is for this reason that journalist Kalman Liebskind of Ma’ariv and the Galei Yisrael radio station presented his fellow professionals with a challenge – let the public know who you voted for in the past elections. This would give us, the electorate, a tool with which to filter the journalist’s opinion and would increase our trust in the information we receive. It would also help the journalists themselves to overcome their impulses and to try to be fair especially to those with whom they disagree politically. Unfortunately, thus far, most of Israel’s top media people, such as Yaron London and Motti Kirschenbaum, who interviewed him on their TV program, have not risen to Liebskind’s challenge.
Elections can bring out the best and the worst in the media.
The worst is already evident, as when Professor Moshe Negbi used his microphone to actively promote Tzipi Livni on his radio program this past week. Media executives must stop such improper use of the airwaves during the election campaign.
The Supreme Court previously asserted the principle that as election day nears, the democratic process becomes all-important and may even negate the freedom of expression of the media. Media celebrities should keep their opinions to themselves.
But there is another side to the media’s responsibility. Unfortunately, in the past few elections, there has been no open debate between the various party leaders.
The lack of willingness of candidates to present themselves to the public, unfiltered, and to face public scrutiny and criticism does not raise the level of trust. The challenge to our media is, this time, to actively promote a more open election campaign, in which those seeking election must face the public and answer the tough questions.
This past week provided ample evidence of the politicians’ fear of the media. Once more, in an act of desperation, the politicians are allowing TV Channel 10 to get away with its ongoing blatant violations of the very contracts it signed.
Instead of closing it down, they permitted it another chance to spit in the face of the law and continue to violate its commitments.
The politicians obviously expect that just as they do not demand accountability from the channel, so the channel will not demand it from them.
The bottom line is an additional blemish on Israel’s democratic process and the principle of equality before the law. The media is exempt from the law.
This kind of attitude puts fuel in the engines of those media personnel who believe that they are the only bearers of democracy. It contributes to the loss of trust of the population in the democratic process.
There is, though, one major source of relief – technology. The electronic media has changed many rules of the game. People obtain their information from an increasing variety of outlets. The mainstream media becomes increasingly irrelevant and the damage it does to the democratic process lessens. It is this which makes us hope that the present election campaign will be perceived by the public as being the fairest one in recent years.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).